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Church architecture: Houses of God on earth
This story marks the first in a series about church architecture.
By Julie Filby
For 2,000 years Catholics have been building churches to gather communities to worship. These sacred buildings—from the most elaborate basilica to the simplest country chapel—are marked by diverse architectural styles.
Examples of this diversity can be seen throughout the Denver Archdiocese including the majestic Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in downtown Denver, the contemporary design of St. Mary Rifle on the Western Slope, and the traditional beauty of Our Lady of Mount Carmel Latin Rite in suburban Littleton.
While Catholic churches differ in style and design, they share the commonality of being a house of God on earth.
Beauty of God’s house
|Pictured above: Photo by James Baca/DCR The interior of the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, the Mother Church of the Denver Archdiocese. The Cathedral Basilica is located at 1530 Logan St. in Denver.|
Architect Duncan Stroik, associate professor of architecture at the University of Notre Dame, is considered one of the foremost educators and practitioners in Catholic architecture.
“We, who are designing or building churches, or are on building committees … have to think about how can we can make a church a sacred place; how can we make it transcendent,” said Stroik, director of the Institute for Sacred Architecture. “When people walk in, (they should think) not only is it a wonderful place, but it’s clearly to the glory of God.”
There are many ways this can be accomplished, that include the influence of mainstream architectural strains such as classical and medieval, and the less traditional modernist approach.
“There’s not one way to do this, especially in the Catholic tradition, there are lots and lots of solutions,” he said. “And of course, there are solutions that we haven’t thought of yet.”
The architecture of her buildings should match the continuity of the Church.
“The Roman Catholic Church is timeless, enduring and permanent,” Stroik said. “Catholic architecture is universal. Every church has the same purpose, and can be experienced universally … the architecture should transport us out of ourselves and into God’s presence.”
|Picture above: Photo by James Baca/DCR Arches, columns and 75 stained glass windows made in Germany add to the beauty of the French Gothic Cathedral Basilica, which was designed by Detroit architect Leon Coquard and completed by Denver architects Aaron Gove and Thomas Walsh.|
In the Denver Archdiocese, when a parish would like to build a new church or renovate an existing one, the process begins with the pastor requesting permission from Denver Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. Cap.
“Since the archbishop is the supreme liturgist, he is the one who oversees the renovation and building of all churches in the archdiocese,” explained Deacon Charles Parker, director of liturgy. “Assisting the archbishop in this process are multiple lay and religious personnel at the Archdiocese of Denver’s pastoral center.”
Once permission is granted and funds are available, the Office of Construction and Planning recommends architects for the parish to interview.
“A parish really has a lot of say about the architect and type of architecture they select,” said Deacon Philip Criste, director of construction and planning. “We make sure the design and ultimate construction conform to standards—in other words, that the church will stand up and function.”
In coordination with the architect, pastors and parish committees select the overall design and components such as pews or other seating, sacred images, materials, colors and patterns.
Churches should be designed to stand the test of time.
“Church architecture must speak to its time and beyond,” said Stroik. “It should seek to be un-datable.”
Once a church is engineered and designed, parish plans are submitted to the archbishop’s office for liturgical review. The Office of Liturgy serves as Archbishop Chaput’s representative to ensure that governing documents, diocesan guidelines and his discretionary judgments are followed.
“It’s not always a rubber stamp approval,” said Deacon Parker, who has been involved in the approval process for six years. “We look at the plan seriously; several designs have gone back and forth … until we came to a consensus.”
|Pictured above: An angel statue is made of Carrara marble from Italy. Structural interior marble is from Marble, Colo.|
Some of the principle elements that must be maintained when a church is built or renovated include the following:
The altar must be made of noble material to represent the dignity and permanence of Christ. In the Denver Archdiocese some of the materials used include wood, marble, flagstone and slate rock.
The tabernacle is to be located on the center axis of a church. If this is not the case in a current design, when a church renovates or builds, the tabernacle is to be moved.
Baptism fonts in the archdiocese are to have an expression of “living water,” that is, the water should somehow move. Also the font should have the possibility of immersion or infusion.
A symbol of Christ crucified must be present on or near the altar; a processional cross can stand for a symbol of Christ crucified.
Kneelers are required in all new and renovated churches.
“The location and the design of these things not only have aesthetic considerations, but theological considerations,” said Deacon Parker. “For example, baptismal fonts are generally at the entryway of the church, because that’s how we all entered the church: through the waters of baptism.”
A primary resource used to guide parishes, architects and liturgical consultants is “Built of Living Stones: Art, Architecture and Worship,” drafted by the U.S. bishops in 2000.
Architect Bob Saas, an owner of Eidos Architects in Greenwood Village, has worked more than 100 church projects regionally, including some 30 Catholic schools and churches, including the cathedral. Through his experience he has gained a grasp of liturgical guidelines.
“We understand how the archbishop expresses himself in terms of making sure we properly interpret “Built of Living Stones,’” he said. “(The guide) affects how we go about the design process, and how we align liturgical items such as the font, altar and tabernacle.”
The guidelines are in place to help maintain Catholic identity.
|Pictured above: The front doors are made of brass. Above them are the papal insignia miter with two keys.|
“A church is set aside for sacred worship, and while there are freedoms allowed when parishes renovate or build new churches … the guidelines protect them from the whims of individual likes and dislikes,” said Deacon Parker. “Guidelines ground people in the faith that is Jesus Christ as source and summit of our worship and that’s why the Blessed Sacrament is centered in our church.”
The way a church is ordered says something about how the faithful pray.
“There has to be a suitable place for the assembly to gather, and a sanctuary that’s set apart where sacred things happen,” said Deacon Parker, “where the Eucharist is confected, where the word is proclaimed, where the priest leads us in prayer.”
Church architecture reflects the unity of membership, as well as the diversity of the functions. French bishop William Durandus of Mende (1230-1296), author of the liturgical treatise “Rationale Divinorum Officiorum” (1287), described a church building as being built of the living stones of the faithful, with Christ as the door, bishops and doctors as the piers of the nave and preachers as the protecting beams of the roof.
“We all have different roles, and our church architecture plays that out,” Deacon Parker said.
Stories to follow will feature specific churches in the Denver Archdiocese.